Earlier this month, over 80 Catholic scholars — mostly professors — sent an open letter to Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, on the occasion of his presenting the commencement address at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. They accused him of being out of line with the teaching of the Catholic Church on social justice, especially concerning the needs of the poor. They suggested that in light of the teaching of the Magisterium — the pope and the bishops in union with him, who are the authoritative teachers for the Church — he is a theological dissenter. Some in the media were quick to draw a parallel with President Obama’s controversial appearance at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement: It was supposedly another case of a Catholic university inviting a speaker who is at odds with the Church’s teachings.
The gist of the signers’ claim is that Boehner is against the poor. There is no question that the Church has always had a special love for the poor, although the signers seem not to realize that that includes the spiritually impoverished as well as the economic. Their concern is strictly with government programs directed to their economic and physical well-being. They criticize the proposed 2012 House budget proposal for substantially cutting Food Stamps and Medicaid, “effectively ending” Medicare, and carving out new tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. The proposal was largely the work of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. The signers could probably also have called him a dissenter, since he too is a Catholic. What they have done is to confuse a basic point about Catholic social teaching: They have convoluted the teaching that must be upheld with how it must be done. Catholic social teaching stresses a “preferential option for the poor,” but addressing the problems of poverty involves a heavy dose of prudential judgment. The social encyclicals make clear that the Church offers no political or economic program, that within Catholic orthodoxy many different approaches may be undertaken to achieve the principles and moral teachings that are set out. What the letter signers have done — in good para-magisterial fashion — is to absolutize programmatic approaches and try to treat them as moral imperatives.
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There is absolutely no evidence that Boehner, Ryan, or for that matter any of the House Republicans who voted for the budget proposal — it was supported by no Democrats — are against the poor. There is even less justification for the inclusion in the letter of the usual accusation of the statist left that those seeking to cut federal social welfare spending are “cruel.” For people so devoted to lecturing others on how they supposedly violate Catholic teaching, this hardly seems to conform to the highest Christian law: charity. It also hardly helps promote the civil discussion necessary to work out sensible solutions to complex public policy problems. That, it seems to me, is a prerequisite to building the broader civilization of love that Blessed Pope John Paul II called for.
If the signers are so sure that the poor will be hurt by budget cuts, perhaps they should look back on history. As I discuss in my forthcoming book, The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic, when the Great Society Congress enacted Medicaid it assumed — without much research — that the poor were deprived of access to health care. But there is no evidence that Medicaid improved the poor’s access to health care over the charitable care that already existed. There is also no solid evidence that Medicare has improved the mortality of the elderly. The budget proposal, by the way, does not end financial support for the health care of the elderly, but substitutes a voucher program. The greater danger to the elderly and infirm that the signers take no heed of is the pressure that almost certainly will develop for the rationing of care if changes are not made. Actually, Great Society programs in general have not had a good track record in improving the lot of the poor.
What Boehner, Ryan and company are trying to do is address a deficit problem that almost certainly will undermine such entitlements in the not-too-long-run if not addressed. It likely will also damage the entire economy, whose worst victims will be the very poor that the signers are concerned about. To ignore out-of- control federal spending now is both unreasonable and irresponsible. This is hardly demanded by Catholic social teaching. It is also not fair for the signers to imply that the proposed tax cuts are intended to line the pockets of the wealthy. Their purpose, like the Kennedy-LBJ and Reagan tax cuts, is to stimulate investment and thereby expand the economy.
The irony of the signers’ calling Boehner to account for passing an “anti-life” budget and ignoring subsidiarity can hardly be missed when some of them are strong supporters of pro-abortion politicians and dissenters on abortion and contraception, and seek a continued expansion of federal power. One sees nothing in their letter indicating an awareness of the problems of bureaucracy and the welfare state mentioned in Centesimus Annus, or of the consistent Catholic stress on intermediary, non-governmental “civil society” groups as a way to address social needs.
There is a big difference in Catholic colleges and universities having proponents of abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, and same-sex “marriage” — which involve exception-less moral teachings — as commencement speakers (like Obama), and those (like Boehner) who seek to achieve the economic justice sought by Catholic social teaching by a means other than that approved by the Great Society or the statist left.
COPYRIGHT 2011 SOCIETY OF CATHOLIC SOCIAL SCIENTISTS